Nicolas Cage Vs. Osama Bin Laden Case File 94: Army of One
Let’s face it: our old pal Nicolas Cage isn’t doing so great these days. Oh sure, he can still bring it in the right role, as his riveting turn in Joe illustrated, but Cage has had a rough last two decades or so. It’s as if some manner of The Change-Up-like mystical mishap occurred while Cage and John Travolta were pissing in a fountain together during the filming of Face/Off, as men sometimes do, and they were both simultaneously struck by a magical lightning bolt that robbed them of their judgment and quality control, leaving them unable to delineate between quality projects and unforgivable garbage. See also: everything they've done since, on and off screen.
Cage’s films these days aren’t necessarily “A pictures.” They’re not necessarily “big-budget.” They aren’t always “released theatrically” or “at all.” To be brutally honest, some of them were burned in shame by the debauched Dukes who bankrolled them or shown only once in a sex dungeon in Bangkok as some weird performance-art stunt funded by Martin Shkreli.
But when it was announced that Academy-Award winning national treasure (and National Treasure star) Nicolas Cage was going to star in Army of One, a wild satirical comedy from Borat and Bruno director Larry Charles about the true story of a Colorado handyman named Gary Faulkner who decided to single-handedly hunt down Osama Bin Laden after being ordered to do so by God, I naturally assumed that I would be hearing an awful lot about this audacious project.
At the very least, I assumed I would hear something about Army of One. Heck, one of my favorite things in the world is The Flop House podcast and they have a whole month devoted to Nicolas Cage (or possibly two, it can be hard to keep track) and I could be wrong, but I don’t recall them mentioning the crazy-sounding Nicolas Cage flop Army of One even once, let alone covering it.
They aren’t alone. I literarily haven’t seen a review or article about Army of One, nor have I seen anyone write about it on social media. It’s as if the movie never existed at all, that upon its so-called “release” all prints were simply hurled into an infinite cosmic void. Army of One’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even have a “reception" section, and in this case, no news is not good news.
The reason people aren’t talking about Army of One, I soon discovered, is because it’s utter garbage: condescending, brutally unfunny, devoid of laughs but big on unearned self-regard. It’s one of those dreadful, generally DOA misanthropic comedies whose attitude towards their lead character and cultural milieu can succinctly be summed up as “Get a load of this asshole!”
That’s not surprisingly also the tone of smug, cutesy narration that encourages us to look down on the film's characters, particularly its anti-hero, from across a vast universe of intellectual and cultural superiority. Gary, you see, is one of Cage’s most extreme and least likable or successful performances. Cage starts at 11 and keeps the energy going at an exhausting rate as a motormouthed barfly stoner who talks and acts like Paul Giamatti on crystal meth and looks like a guy who has been accidentally been cos-playing the Dude from The Big Lebowski for decades.
I sometimes love Cage’s big, crazy, theatrical performances but there’s a big difference between a young Cage’s unhinged commitment to playing a literal monster of capitalism and toxic masculinity in a blackly comic arthouse comedy like Vampire’s Kiss and Cage devouring scenery as a dumb caricature of an ugly American here. Gary is supposed to be a lovable loser and ugly/beautiful dreamer with a heart of gold but the movie dramatically overestimates the character’s likability. If I were an executive and this script was submitted to me, I would scrawl in red marker on every page, “WHY WOULD ANYONE SPEND TIME WITH THIS CHARACTER OF THEIR OWN ACCORD? HE’S LITERALLY THE WORST CHARACTER I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. I WANT TO MURDER HIM.”
Cage plays Gary as a real piece-of-shit, salt-of-the-earth neighborhood character, a true-blue Patriot who believes in domestic beers and the supremacy of the United States and chicken wings and God, and that’s about it. Gary demonstrates his cartoon patriotism in cranky rants against the inferiority of non-American products that are supposed to be racist but also a little adorable in the same sense that Gary is supposed to be a little racist but also adorable in an Archie Bunker vein. He’s not. He’s just the fucking worse.
Gary isn’t just any blowhard, however. Since he was a little boy, he’s been visited by God (Russell Brand, who unsurprisingly plays God as the ultimate Russell Brand egotist), who gives him wise counsel like, “Shit happens, Gary. Crying about it won’t do any good.” Later, the film’s obsession with feces and profanity and the Lord using profanity “pays off” when God answers Gary’s overwhelmed cry of “Holy shit” by assuring him that he does, indeed, take a “holy” shit every day. Because he’s God! And he poops! Hence the “holy” shit line. Them’s the jokes, folks! Tip your waitress on the way out.
Then one day, God tells Gary to hunt down and capture Osama Bin Laden despite Gary’s lack of military training, or training in anything, really. Gary seems incapable of doing the ordinary, let alone the extraordinary, but that doesn’t keep him from nevertheless embarking on a Quixotic quest to track down the notorious terrorist and bring him to justice. That sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is. Really, Gary’s “mission” doesn’t involve much more than bumbling around in a drunken or stoned haze, meandering into and then out of seemingly dangerous, perilous situations relatively unscathed, because god loves drunks and idiots and boorish white American dudes and Gary is all of the above.
Around this time, the unsurprisingly single Gary (when you have that little to offer women of the world, it’s easy to remain unattached) reconnects with Marci Mitchell (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a high school friend who has traveled a rough, rocky road to sobriety since they last saw each other. Gary charms Marci by talking about how many of his masturbation fantasies she figured prominently in back in their high school days. Before long, Marci is having her unlikely, appallingly shaggy new love interest meet her pre-pubescent niece with Cerebral Palsy.
Army of One’s tone shifts painfully from mean-spirited working-class comedy to joke-light drama whenever the film focuses on a love story it’d be better off discarding completely. Army of One's romantic subplot illustrates why King of Comedy was better off not being weighed down by a half hour of scenes featuring Rupert Pupkin’s arbitrary love interest (played by, I dunno, Maria Conchita Alonso) about how, as a woman of a certain age who’s been banged around by life a bit, she’s lucky to have a good-hearted, if someone eccentric ambitious young show business striver like Pupkin in her life.
As a man, I felt terrible about the messages Army of One’s romantic plot sends women. McClendon-Covey gazes at Cage’s repellent cartoon of a loser with a quaking reverence better suited to a disciple looking upon the risen Christ than a woman watching a man successfully converse with a disabled child.
Army of One suggests that if you’re a middle-aged woman with a fair amount of baggage and a child, and you find an unattached man who’s nice to you and the disabled child you’re raising, then of course you’re just going to have to just accept that he’s also a habitually unemployed, racist, drunk, stoner motormouthed asshole on a delusional campaign to single-handedly capture Osama Bin Laden that he continually prioritizes above his relationship with you.
McClendon-Covey of Reno 911 fame is sexy and beautiful, but she’s beautiful in a slightly tomboyish way, which by movie standards means she’s plain to okay-looking, and consequently would be super-lucky to have a sweetheart like Gary in her life. Except that Gary isn’t a sweetheart. The movie’s mawkish campaign to convince us that Gary is a secret mensch with pure intentions despite ample evidence to the contrary feels condescending and disingenuous. Army of One never made me laugh but it also never made me feel anything other than contempt for it.
Army of One spends seventy percent of its duration admonishing us to laugh derisively at Gary, to stand in stern judgment of his Denny’s and chicken wings-loving hillbilly ignorance and the remaining thirty percent limply and unsuccessfully soliciting sympathy for him as a misunderstood dreamer whose ability to talk to a small girl with cerebral palsy marks him as a minor saint.
When Larry Charles’ Borat was released to ecstatic reviews and astonishing box-office success, a debate raged within our culture as to whether or not the film was a sly and satirically savage exploration of everyday racism, sexism and homophobia or an incredibly classist, mean-spirited and heartless exercise in sexism, classism, anti-Semitism and homophobia dressed up in the trendy rags of hipster irony.
Then Bruno was released to pretty good box-office and mixed reviews and it sure felt like Charles, once again in the director’s chair, was enjoying a laugh at the expense of extreme outsiders. Army of One is so bad and so thoroughly without merit that it actually made me like Charles’ earlier movies less in retrospect, because it feels like the ugly, snide arrogance tainting every frame of Army of One is present in those earlier, better films, albeit in smaller, less toxic doses.
Army of One seems to conclusively answer the question of, "Is Larry Charles punching down and laughing at the rubes and hicks in movies like Borat, Bruno and Army of One?" with "Oh god yes."
You’d imagine a movie about a man driven by celestial visions to travel into Pakistan and kill the most infamous Muslim terrorist in the word for God and country would have timeliness and cultural and political relevance on its side no matter how badly it misses the mark comedically. In that respect, it’s almost impressive how little Army of One has to say about any of the incredibly juicy, fertile subjects it touches upon, from racism and xenophobia to patriotism run amok to the War on Terror.
Sixteen years later, the tragic events of 9/11 remain an experience that the people who lived through it can not forget, and most likely will never be able to forget. So there’s some weird reverse synchronicity in the 9/11 attacks being the catalyst for a woefully misbegotten mistake of a comedy that’s damn near impossible to remember.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure